Cooperstown Notebook: Back to the Sixties, Part 1

© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the spring, when the existence of the 2022 season — or at least one that started on time and ran 162 games — was anything but a certainty due to the owners’ lockout, I embarked on an open-ended Hall of Fame-related project centered around starting pitchers. Having already taken a swing at modernizing JAWS to better account for the changes in starter workloads that have occurred over the past century and a half, I turned my focus to the demographic disparities among enshrined starters, and examined the cream of the crop still outside the Hall, getting as far as those born in the 1950s.

You’re forgiven if this all seems pretty hazy or even unfamiliar, and perhaps confused as to why I’m bringing this up now. With the season in its final week but containing only minimal drama as far as the races go (pour one out for Team Entropy), it struck me that it might be my last chance to delve into the topic until after the playoffs, and so here we are.

I intended to continue this Cooperstown Notebook series during the season, particularly in light of the late-April announcement of the Hall reconfiguring its Era Committee process yet again. Up for election in December will be players on the Contemporary Baseball ballot, defined as those who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present day. The eight-candidate ballot, which will be announced in November, will almost certainly include the obvious candidates who fell off recent writers’ ballots, namely Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Fred McGriff. It will also likely include the holdovers who received significant support on the 2020 Modern Baseball ballot and have been classified as belonging to this period, namely Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker (Dave Parker and Steve Garvey belong to the Classic Baseball period, next up in December 2024).

As for holdovers from the 2019 Today’s Game ballot (the one from which Lee Smith and Harold Baines were elected), all of them except Lou Piniella (who’s now qualified for the Contemporary Baseball Managers, Umpires, and Executives ballot, to be voted upon in December 2023) received “fewer than five votes” out of 16 that year. From that group, Orel Hershiser was one of two pitchers in my review of pitchers born in the 1950s who received my recommendation in light of S-JAWS, though that hardly guarantees him another ballot appearance. Dave Stieb, who’s never graced an Era Committee ballot after going one-and-done on the writers’ ballot in 2004, is the other hurler from that period whose case merits a closer look in light of S-JAWS, but I’m not holding my breath that he’ll be on there.

To backtrack a bit, I fell down this rabbit hole because as things stand only nine starting pitchers born in 1950 or later are enshrined. As a percentage of pitchers with at least 2,000 innings — a practical cutoff but not an absolute one (Dizzy Dean is the only enshrined starter from the NL, AL, and bygone white leagues with fewer) — that’s far lower than what came before:

Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers by Birth Decades
Birth Decade Qual. (2,000 IP) HOF SP Pct HOF
<1870 47 7 14.9%
1870-1879 38 7 18.4%
1880-1889 30 9 30.0%
1890-1899 35 6 17.1%
1900-1909 33 5 15.2%
1910-1919 16 2 12.5%
1920-1929 22 6 27.3%
1930-1939 31 8 25.8%
1940-1949 51 7 13.7%
1950-1959 45 2 4.4%
1960-1969 44 5 11.4%
1970-1979 33 2 6.1%
<1900 151 29 19.2%
1900-1929 71 13 18.3%
1930-1949 82 15 18.3%
1950-1979 122 9 7.4%

Why should we care about this demographic dip? Mainly because we want to equitably represent more recent eras, though doing so requires an understanding that our standards need some tweaking to reflect the evolution of the starting pitcher. While voters have moved past the 300-wins-or-bust mentality by electing Bert Blyleven, Roy Halladay, Pedro Martinez, Jack Morris, Mike Mussina, and John Smoltz along with 300-winners Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux, there are additional candidates from the not-too-distant past who are worthy of recognition, pitchers who may not be significantly better than the average enshrinee (the original stated goal of the JAWS project) but who would hardly be out of place within the broader spectrum of those already honored.

This shouldn’t be taken as a literal call for current and future voters to open the floodgates and elect players to the point that the percentages above are dead even; particularly with the Era Committee reconfigurations, electing anybody might prove to be a tall task. I’m hopeful that eventually we can boost the rates of election for pitchers of more recent vintage while keeping in mind that the somewhat looser standards make it apparent that a few guys from the more ancient eras look even stronger in the light of S-JAWS than in JAWS.

Like JAWS, S-JAWS — which is now the default at Baseball Reference’s Starting Pitcher page — uses an average of a pitcher’s career and peak WAR (best seven seasons at large) for comparisons to the averages of all Hall of Fame pitchers. The idea behind S-JAWS is to reduce the skewing caused by the impact of 19th century and dead-ball era pitchers, some of whom topped 400, 500, or even 600 innings in a season on multiple occasions. I’ve chosen to do this by prorating the peak-component credit for any heavy-workload season to a maximum of 250 innings, a level that the current and recent BBWAA candidates rarely reached, and only one active pitcher (Justin Verlander) has, albeit by a single inning a decade ago. The various emphases on pitch counts, innings limits, and times through the order make it unlikely we’ll see such levels again, at least on a consistent basis, and while we can debate, lament, and discuss whether it’s worth trying to reverse that trend, that’s not my focus. Given the current trends in the game regarding starting pitcher usage, it might make more sense 5-10 years from now to look at candidates on a 200-225 inning basis, but for now this is a reasonable place to start the adjustments.

In this piece I breezed through the pre-1900, 1900-29, and 1930-49 periods to identify the starters among the top 100 in S-JAWS who are outside the Hall, and here I went through those born in the 1950-59 period. At last we get to the 1960-69 group, which is better represented within the Hall than the decades on either side because that period produced a bumper crop of very good hurlers. Here are the ones who fall within the top 100, meaning with an S-JAWS of 43.3 or higher:

Starting Pitchers Born 1960-1969
Roger Clemens 1962 139.2 65.9 64.0 102.6 101.6 1984-2007 354-184 3.12 143
Greg Maddux+ 1966 106.6 56.3 55.6 81.4 81.1 1986-2008 355-227 3.16 132
Randy Johnson+ 1963 101.1 61.5 60.4 81.3 80.8 1988-2009 303-166 3.29 135
Mike Mussina+ 1968 82.8 44.5 44.5 63.6 63.6 1991-2008 270-153 3.68 123
Curt Schilling 1966 79.5 48.6 47.5 64.0 63.5 1988-2007 216-146 3.46 127
Tom Glavine+ 1966 80.7 44.1 44.1 62.4 62.4 1987-2008 305-203 3.54 118
Kevin Brown 1965 67.8 45.2 44.6 56.5 56.2 1986-2005 211-144 3.28 127
John Smoltz+ 1967 69.0 38.7 38.5 53.9 53.7 1988-2009 213-155 3.33 125
David Cone 1963 62.3 43.4 43.3 52.8 52.8 1986-2003 194-126 3.46 121
Bret Saberhagen 1964 58.9 43.1 42.3 51.0 50.6 1984-2001 167-117 3.34 126
Kevin Appier 1967 54.5 43.1 43.1 48.8 48.8 1989-2004 169-137 3.74 121
Chuck Finley 1962 57.9 39.5 39.5 48.7 48.7 1986-2002 200-173 3.85 115
Dwight Gooden 1964 52.9 38.9 37.7 45.9 45.3 1984-2000 194-112 3.51 111
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The self-inflicted wounds of Clemens and Schilling aside, the best of this group is already in Cooperstown, and I don’t need to rehash their credentials here. Of the rest, some might have gotten there with better staying power; of the pitchers I’m highlighting here, only Brown and Finley reached 3,000 innings, a level that all starters who have been elected since Sandy Koufax (1972) reached save for Halladay and Martinez.

Because of the way I designed S-JAWS, none of the six pitchers up for discussion from this batch lose much off their peak scores, but they climb in the rankings. Here’s a look at how things changed for the half-dozen I’m covering here, along with a few callbacks from previous installments:

JAWS vs. S-JAWS Ranking Comparison
Pitcher JAWS S-JAWS JAW Rk S-JAWS Rk Change Ahead J Ahead S
Kevin Brown 56.5 56.2 51 33 18 36 25
Luis Tiant 55.1 53.7 59 44 15 40 32
David Cone 52.8 52.8 65 48 17 45 35
Bret Saberhagen 51.0 50.6 69 57 12 46 41
Dave Stieb 50.4 49.1 72 63 9 47 44
Kevin Appier 48.8 48.8 76 65 11 49 45
Chuck Finley 48.7 48.7 77 67 10 49 46
Orel Hershiser 48.1 47.6 82 75 7 49 47
Dwight Gooden 46.0 45.4 91 87 4 51 49
Above J and Above S refer to the number of Hall of Fame starting pitchers (out of 66) who rank higher than the pitcher in question in the JAWS and S-JAWS ranking (e.g., Brown is outranked by 36 enshrined starters via JAWS, 25 via S-JAWS)

I’ll refer back to these. As I did in the Fifties installment, I’ll start at the bottom, which isn’t to say that I’m arguing on behalf of all of these pitchers.

Dwight Gooden

Of the pitchers here, Gooden is the one who burned most brightly and seemed destined for Cooperstown. A year after being the fifth pick out of Tampa’s Hillsborough High School in the 1982 draft, the 18-year-old fireballer struck out 300 in 190 innings at A-level Lynchburg. In 1984, the 19-year-old Gooden arrived on the major league scene with a rising fastball that could reach 100 mph, and a knee-buckling curveball so good his teammates dubbed it Lord Charles instead of the common Uncle Charlie. The kid set a rookie record with a league-leading 276 strikeouts in 218 innings, became the youngest All-Star ever, won NL Rookie of the Year honors, finished second in the NL Cy Young voting behind Rick Sutcliffe (!) and earned the nickname Doctor K. Then in 1985 he turned in a season for the ages, going 24-4, with a 1.53 ERA (229 ERA+) and 268 strikeouts in 276.2 innings, good for the NL Cy Young, the pitchers’ Triple Crown (league lead in wins, strikeouts, and ERA), and 13.3 WAR (12.2 pitching, 1.1 offense) — a single-season total that stands as the highest of any pitcher in the live-ball era.

It was mostly downhill from those lofty heights. Though he helped the Mets to a World Championship in 1986, Gooden lost the sizzle on his mid-90s fastball and wasn’t nearly as dominant (17-6, 2.84 ERA, 4.3 WAR). Prior to the start of 1987 season, he went into a drug rehabilitation program and missed the Mets’ first 50 games; decades later, he admitted that he missed the Mets’ World Series parade because he was high in a drug dealer’s apartment. He returned from rehab to post a few more good years with the Mets, helping them to the NL East title in 1988 (18-9, 3.19 ERA) while making his fourth and final All-Star team, but he produced just a 103 ERA+ and a total of 23.1 WAR for the 1987-94 span. Shoulder problems stemming from overuse took their toll, as did continued cocaine and alcohol problems. While serving a 60-day suspension for testing positive for cocaine in 1994, he tested positive again and was suspended for the entire ’95 season.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner offered Gooden a chance at redemption once the pitcher’s suspension ended, and he responded with a solid season that included a no-hitter and 2.6 WAR, but he was left off the postseason roster as the team won its first World Series since 1978. He bounced around for a few more years, relying on luck and guile more than talent — my pal Nick Stone nicknamed him “Granny Gooden” because watching him pitch was “like watching an elderly woman navigate an icy staircase” — with stops in Cleveland, Houston, and Tampa Bay before a return to the Bronx in 2000.

Like former teammate Darryl Strawberry, Gooden’s occasional moments of glory mainly served to remind us — and him — of what might have been. He doesn’t gain much ground in the move to S-JAWS, particularly relative to the other pitchers here, and his 0-4, 3.97 ERA record in the postseason doesn’t help his cause. His recovery continues to be worth rooting for, however.

Chuck Finley

Aside from Nolan Ryan, no pitcher is as closely associated with the history of the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels as Finley, the franchise leader in wins (165), innings (2,675), pitching WAR (52.0), and a whole bunch of other categories. The Halos tried doubly hard to get the 6-foot-6 southpaw, drafting him in the 15th round in 1984, and again as the fourth pick in the following January’s secondary draft. He threw just 41 innings in the minors before being called up to join the bullpen of the ill-fated 1986 AL West champions.

In 1988, Finley finally nailed down a rotation spot, beginning a 12-year run as the team’s mainstay, during which he posted a 3.70 ERA (119 ERA+) while averaging 212 innings and 4.3 WAR. He ranked in the AL top 10 in WAR five times in that span, made four All-Star teams, and topped 7.0 WAR three times; over that stretch, only Clemens, Maddux, Cone, and Johnson outproduced his 51.5 WAR, while Brown tied him. His career-high 7.7 WAR ranked second in the league in 1990 as he went 18-9 with a 2.40 ERA, but he finished a distant seventh in the Cy Young voting. He never led the league in Ks, but ranked in the top 10 in 10 out of 12 seasons from 1989-2000, and in the top five in seven out of eight from ’93-2000.

Following the 1999 season, Finley left the Angels for Cleveland on a three-year, $25 million deal, which he inaugurated with his fifth and final All-Star season (16-11 4.17 ERA, 4.3 WAR); alas, the club missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. Injuries limited him to 22 starts and an ugly 5.54 ERA in 2001, and he pitched just one more year, a season that was overshadowed by wife Tawny Kitaen (of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” video fame) being arrested for spousal abuse for attacking him while driving the night before he was scheduled to make his season debut. Traded to St. Louis late in the year, he finished strong and helped the Cardinals win the NL Central, but chose to walk away from his next potential payday at age 39.

Finley’s better than most people remember, but he lacks any kind of hook — a Cy Young Award, a big postseason, a signature accomplishment — that would elevate his Hall of Fame case beyond what his very respectable but hardly overwhelming S-JAWS tells us. Hershiser is below Finley in the rankings, but with his 1988 achievements (NL Cy Young, record-setting scoreless streak, and epic postseason run), three other top-five Cy Young finishes, and additional October success, he’s a much more viable, and worthy, candidate for election.

Kevin Appier

An intense competitor with an unorthodox delivery and a killer forkball and slider to complement his fastball, Appier was a first-round pick by the Royals in 1987. He debuted with the club two years later, when Saberhagen was en route to his second Cy Young, and inherited the mantle of staff ace during the team’s last gasp at competitive relevance for a generation. From 1990-93, he finished among the AL’s top four in ERA three times, and from ’90-97, he ranked among the league’s top 10 in WAR seven times; his total of 46.4 (5.8 per year) trailed only Clemens and Maddux. His best season was 1993, when he led the AL with a 2.56 ERA and 9.3 WAR, but finished third in the AL Cy Young voting; his 18-8 record was no match for Jack McDowell’s 22-10 with a 3.37 ERA and 4.4 WAR (ugh). He made just one All-Star team during this stretch, but certainly deserved more.

A torn labrum cost Appier most of 1998 and a good chunk of his velocity, requiring him to get by on finesse and guile thereafter. The Royals traded him to the A’s in mid-1999, and he helped the team to the AL West title the following season while going 15-11 with a 4.52 ERA (104 ERA+). He parlayed that into a four-year, $42 million deal with the defending NL champion Mets, but while “Ape” pitched well in the Big Apple (3.57 ERA, 3.5 WAR), he was traded to the Angels for injured slugger Mo Vaughn the following winter.

Appier turned in a solid season for the Angels (14-12, 3.92 ERA, 1.8 WAR) in 2002, though he was roughed up in the postseason even as the team won the World Series. He struggled the following season due to a torn flexor tendon, however, and drew his release in late July; the Royals picked him up, and he finished out his contract but missed most of 2004, his age-36 season, due to elbow surgery. Comeback attempts in the next two seasons, with Kansas City and Seattle, didn’t pan out.

Had it not been for injuries, Appier might have had a real shot at Cooperstown, but the what-ifs only go so far. He deserved much more recognition during what was a very good career, but with just one All-Star appearance, a single season receiving Cy Young votes, and an 0-2, 5.34 ERA record in the postseason, he doesn’t have anything that would give his Hall case the traction it would need.

Bret Saberhagen

Though he wasn’t Gooden-level, Saberhagen was a pitching prodigy in his own right. A 19th-round pick out of Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda, California in 1982, he spent just one season in the minors before debuting with the Royals one week shy of his 20th birthday, showing up with a 94 mph fastball, a great changeup, and what teammate and future manager John Wathan would call “the curveball of a lifetime.”

Saberhagen’s solid performance helped win a weak AL West that season, but it was his 20-6, 2.87 ERA performance the following year that had the greater impact. Leading a young rotation to another division title, he garnered his first Cy Young award, topped the circuit with 7.1 WAR, and won World Series MVP honors on the strength of complete-game victories in Games 3 and 7 against the Cardinals, the latter a shutout that helped finish an umpire-aided comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit.

Saberhagen struggled the following year, (7-12, 4.15 ERA, 2.0 WAR), beginning an unfortunate pattern of strong odd-numbered years and lackluster even-numbered ones that included his first All-Star selection in 1987 and a second Cy Young in ’89 (23-6 with a league-low 2.16 ERA and league-high 9.7 WAR), slotted between sub-.500 records and league-average-ish ERAs in ’88 and ’90. Notably, injuries were part of the pattern; arm troubles limited him to 25 starts in 1986 and surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow cut him to 20 starts in ’88. Through his eight seasons in Kansas City, he went 36-48 with a 3.70 ERA and 10.9 WAR in the even years, and 74-30 with a 2.85 ERA and 29.9 WAR in the odds — nearly triple the value!

In the last of those seasons, Saberhagen pitched his first no-hitter, against the White Sox on August 26, 1991, but also missed a month due to tendinitis in his shoulder; even so, his 5.1 WAR ranked eighth in the league. After the season, the Royals, who had grown increasingly wary of his $2.95 million price tag, traded him to the Mets in a five-player deal that included Gregg Jefferies and Kevin McReynolds heading in the other direction. Alas, tendinitis in his right index finger and a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee limited Saberhagen to 34 starts over his first two seasons in New York. While injured, he made headlines and was docked a day’s pay for spraying bleach at reporters as a poorly-received practical joke during the Mets’ dismal 59-103 season in 1993. He made his third All-Star team in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, going 14-4 with a 2.74 ERA and an 11.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He finished second in the NL in WAR (5.5) and third in Cy Young voting while turning in his first good season in an even-numbered year.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep it up. Saberhagen made 25 just starts in 1995, during which he was traded from the Mets to the Rockies, and while he helped the upstart third-year expansion team claim the NL Wild Card, he was pummeled in his lone postseason start by the Braves. He missed all of 1996 due to a pair of shoulder surgeries, the first to repair ligament damage shortly after the ’95 season ended, his second the following May, to implant a titanium anchor to hold his rotator cuff together. After the Rockies declined their $5 million option on him in late 1996, he signed with the Red Sox and spent most of the ’97 season rehabbing, pitching in just six late-season games. It paid off. In 1998, the 34-year-old Saberhagen went 15-8 with a 3.96 ERA while making 31 starts, his highest total since 1989, and helped the Red Sox claim the AL Wild Card. Despite three separate trips to what was then the DL in 1999, he pieced together a strong follow-up, with a 2.95 ERA and 3.8 WAR in 119 innings.

His shoulder was in no shape to continue. Where Dr. David Altchek recommended orthopedic surgery to clean up Saberhagen’s frayed rotator cuff, he didn’t expect to discover a 90% tear when he operated. Not until July 27, 2001 would Saberhagen take a major league mound again, but on that day he spun six innings of one-run ball for his 167th and final major league win. Alas, that was followed by two rough outings, more pain, and one final trip to the DL. He retired that winter at age 37; as of 2007, when I first wrote up his Hall of Fame case, he held the record with 1,016 days on the disabled list.

Given how much time he spent convalescing, rehabbing, or pitching through injuries, it’s remarkable how well Saberhagen did pitch. As I noted in the previous installment of this series, despite not debuting until 1984 and missing some time thereafter, he ranked seventh in WAR during the ’80-89 span. Extend that for a second decade and his ranking is even more impressive:

Pitching WAR Leaders 1980-99
Rk Player Yrs Age IP W-L ERA ERA+ WAR WAR/250
1 Roger Clemens 1984-1999 21-36 3462.1 247-134 3.04 147 103.6 7.5
2 Greg Maddux+ 1986-1999 20-33 3068.2 221-126 2.81 144 75.2 6.1
3 David Cone 1986-1999 23-36 2590.0 180-102 3.19 129 60.8 5.9
4 Bret Saberhagen 1984-1999 20-35 2547.2 166-115 3.33 126 59.0 5.8
5 Dave Stieb 1980-1998 22-40 2766.0 168-129 3.40 123 55.1 5.0
6 Orel Hershiser 1983-1999 24-40 3105.2 203-145 3.41 114 53.3 4.3
7 Randy Johnson+ 1988-1999 24-35 2250.0 160-88 3.26 134 52.2 5.8
8 Chuck Finley 1986-1999 23-36 2675.0 165-140 3.72 118 52.0 4.9
9 Kevin Brown 1986-1999 21-34 2430.2 157-108 3.27 127 51.6 5.3
10 Mark Langston 1984-1999 23-38 2962.2 179-158 3.97 107 50.0 4.2
11 Jimmy Key 1984-1998 23-37 2591.2 186-117 3.51 122 49.0 4.7
12 Dwight Gooden 1984-1999 19-34 2695.2 188-107 3.46 111 47.4 4.4
13 Frank Viola 1982-1996 22-36 2836.1 176-150 3.73 112 47.1 4.2
14 Kevin Appier 1989-1999 21-31 1889.1 121-94 3.54 128 46.8 6.2
15 Tom Glavine+ 1987-1999 21-33 2659.2 187-116 3.38 120 46.2 4.3
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer. WAR/250 = Wins Above Replacement per 250 innings pitched.

That’s one hell of a pitcher. By S-JAWS, Saberhagen has some separation above the previous trio as well as Hershiser and Stieb, and rankings-wise, he’s in the same neighborhood as Hall of Famers as disparate as Jim Bunning, Pud Galvin, and Don Sutton, not to mention CC Sabathia. His overall postseason numbers (2-4, 4.67 ERA in 54 innings) aren’t great, but between his 1985 heroics and his two Cy Youngs, he’s got a legitimate case.

Spoiler alert: so to do the last two pitchers on my list, Cone and Brown, but that will have to wait for my next installment.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Pepper Martin
4 months ago

I know I’m late on this entry but just reading the series for the first time — I think you whiffed on a player born in 1942, Sam McDowell. His peak was short, but the entire list of non-steroid, non-active, non-Joe Jackson players not in the Hall of Fame with multiple seasons of 8.7 or more fWAR is Sam McDowell and Snuffy Stirnweiss (whose two big seasons came in 1944 and 1945). McDowell’s 1964-1970 peak stands up there with the best peaks of all time, and the fact that he had little value outside of that peak is the reason why he’s not in the Hall of Fame, but he’s probably the best player never to get a single vote for the Hall of Fame.

Last edited 4 months ago by Pepper Martin
4 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

Willie Davis?

Pepper Martin
4 months ago
Reply to  marchandman34

Davis’ best season by fWAR (6.7 fWAR) would have been McDowell’s 5th best season. McDowell led the AL 5 times in 6 years in strikeouts — including leading the majors three consecutive years, from 1968 to 1970, at the height of pitching dominance. Davis was very good for a long time; McDowell was great for a shorter time, but still 6 or 7 years.

Last edited 4 months ago by Pepper Martin